By: Pablo Ibañez Colomo (Le Concurrentialiste)
Emerging regimes for the regulation of digital markets share a common philosophy. They are grounded on the belief that, if authorities enjoyed more discretion and, in the same vein, if the constraints to which they are subject were reduced, they would be in a position to intervene fast, and adopt the sort of far-reaching remedies which, the argument goes, digital markets demand. In this sense, the new instruments represent, first and foremost, a departure from the limits of competition law systems. Establishing the anticompetitive object or effect of a practice and ensuring that the theories underpinning intervention reflect mainstream views are seen, from this perspective, as a burden that may dangerously delay much-needed action.
There are reasons to question whether this philosophy will deliver on its promises. Granting discretion to an authority to fine-tune digital markets whenever it deems it necessary does not address the fundamental challenges raised by the measures proposed. The phenomenal difficulty that comes with the latter does not relate to the lack of discretion, but to the very nature of the intervention expected from authorities. Redesigning products (as in Google Shopping), altering business models (as in Android) and re-allocating rents across the supply chain (is a 30% commission too much or just about appropriate?) are complex tasks, prone to errors, which are not made any easier by doing away with the need to show the anticompetitive object and/or effect of a practice (or the need to weigh such effects against any pro-competitive gains). The lengthy aftermath of the Google saga, and the aura of limbo and uncertainty that surrounds the remedies implemented in those cases, provides eloquent evidence in this sense.
This piece, however, makes a different point. It is submitted that granting discretion to an authority to fine-tune digital markets does not necessarily do it any favours. On the contrary. Depending on the design of the regime, discretion may in fact weaken it vis-à-vis stakeholders. One of the most precious powers of an administrative authority (and all of us, really) is the ability to say no. The ability, in other words, to see off pressure from firms and governments and take a decisive stand on a particular issue (or not take a stand at all). Paradoxically, the problem with discretion is that it empowers the authority to reach virtually any decision it desires from a policy-making standpoint. Once this impression is created, it may be difficult for an authority to justify why it favours certain outcomes and why it does not opt for the maximalist (or minimalist) positions allowed under the regime…